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Zoee photography by Rafal Zajiko
ZoeePhotography Rafal Zajiko

Meet Zoee, the UK synth pop singer embracing imperfection

The London artist and The Rhythm Method collaborator shares a video for her sugar-sweet new song ‘Appreciate’

You might know Zoee from “Cruel”, the latest single from UK pop duo and Dazed 100-ers The Rhythm Method. You might also know her from its music video, where she sang karaoke with the band in the back of a London pub. What you might not have known, however, is that Zoee also writes contagious pop songs as a solo artist.

Following last year’s forlorn “Betcha”, released via Ryan Hemsworth’s Secret Songs platform, the singer has put out her debut EP Insecure. Co-produced with The Rhythm Method’s Rowan Martin, the four-track release ties together weightless synth pop with Zoee’s unique singing style, a distinctive vocal that’s sweet like treacle but, in her words, “not necessarily meeting this idea of how a Radio One song should sound”.

Zoee will be celebrating Insecure’s launch at Dalston’s Vogue Fabrics on June 1 (a night of “precarious pop music” also featuring Lava La Rue and Viva Victoria) before playing this year’s Bestival in August. Watch her “Appreciate” video below, and read on for a chat about why she’s inspired by reluctant frontwomen, embracing her accent, and rubbing vaseline on Usher’s abs.

You started out singing on commercial dance tracks. That style of music often uses fairly anonymous vocals, but you’ve got quite a distinctive singing voice. What was that like?

Zoee: The dance tracks I’ve done have been like, ‘This is a job.’ I’ve even altered my voice in a way that fits their blueprint. Zoee is more imperfect and raw – that’s the contrast. I’m glad I’ve had the experience as a dance vocalist. I like the fact that they’re anonymous. It’s a weird side that I can tap into, being a vocalist for someone else’s vision. You learn a lot from it as well, just from how people work in the studio. It’s interesting – quite fun, as well.

Did you ever consciously develop your singing style? 

Zoee: No. I think, if anything, I’ve tried to get closer to this part of me that’s less affected. In my previous projects, I’d listen back to some of the tracks I’d done like, ‘Oh god, it’s me and my voice, but it’s an American track.’ It often can depend on what you’re listening to and your influences – I went through a big phase where I was into stuff like LCD Soundsystem and Glass Candy, American electronic pop stuff, and I always emulated that. Gradually, I feel like I’ve become a little more… I don’t know, I’m from England, and my voice sounds like this. I think when me and Rowan started to write together, he was nice because he embraced that.

“Not being perfect is (important to me) – not necessarily meeting this idea of how a Radio One song should sound and being true to your voice” – Zoee

There are a lot of British pop singers who affect an accent and sing over US trap-style beats.

Zoee: It’s also really hard to find your own voice. I guess I’m naturally incredibly self-critical as well: ‘Could this be more real?’ If you’re going to write any kind of poppy music, sometimes it's fun to play with different characters or ways of using your voice. One of the tracks that was going to be on the EP took quite a lot from that Malcolm McLaren track ‘Madam Butterfly’ and the operatic stuff he used on that album. I used my voice in a more operatic way in that song, but I’m not an opera singer by any stretch. It’s slightly unorthodox, not quite meeting the mark of trying to sing like an opera singer or a pop singer. That’s what sets its own stamp on it, doing it your way and seeing how that comes out.

Is there anyone you’ve drawn particular influence from, either musically or vocally? 

Zoee: Someone I found an interest in recently is Anne Clark. She’s got this song called ‘True Love Tales’ that I remember hearing a year or two ago and just being like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ (In the song) she says ‘Love is just a paradox / He loves me, he loves me not,’ and just keeps repeating that refrain. That’s the chorus, but she’s not even singing, she’s talking. It becomes a dark, sort of poetic speech. It’s about a relationship, but it’s something more than that. It feels like more of an atmosphere. Her voice just cuts through in this kind of real way. I think I always go back to her because she’s a reminder of someone who’s just the opposite of being affected with her voice – her British-ness really comes through. I really connect with a sense of vulnerability in some people’s work, and she has that.

Who else? I love Inga Copeland. She’s not someone who makes music remotely like the kind of music that I’m making at the moment, but she’s quite unorthodox in her approach. She’s done stuff with Hype Williams, she’s done her own thing, and now she’s doing another thing called Lolina. The way she uses sound and everything feels like an experiment. It’s good, as someone who makes music, to see other musicians who are willing to put things out there, constantly experimenting or subverting something. She’ll play in a club and just play loads of really noisy sounds. And it can be annoying to go to a gig like that! But you need to respect that she’s constantly working on her artistry as opposed to just being like, ‘I need to make more songs for people to enjoy.’ There’s a punk element there.

“I suppose I connect with people that are frontpeople, but feel slightly uncomfortable with it” – Zoee

How did you fall in with The Rhythm Method? 

Zoee: I quit my old job because I wanted to pursue singing some more. When I sent my ‘Hey, I’m leaving!’ email, someone said, ‘I know someone who’s looking for a pop singer to write some songs with.’ Rowan got in touch with me and we spoke over email. It’s quite funny when I look back at emails, it’s really formal. I thought he was going to be very serious and studio-y, but we went to the guardianship property he was living in with Joey (the other half of The Rhythm Method), it was this tower block near Tower Bridge. He had this weird room with astroturf in it as they had some football game they play. We got on really well and talked about loads of books and similar music (that we liked). We just kind of started from there. 

Why do you think you work well together?

Zoee: Not being perfect is a massive connection between us – not necessarily meeting this idea of how a Radio One song should sound and being true to your voice. That goes for doing stuff live as well. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from Joey and Rowan and the way they just throw themselves out there as The Rhythm Method. It’s all a bit chaotic and kind of lo-fi, and that’s what I like about it.

Is there a frontman or frontwoman you look up to most?

Zoee: I don’t know if I really look up to frontmen or frontwomen that often. I think I probably look up to people like Mica Levi more. She’s always kind of like at the side stage or really covert at the gigs she’s involved in. I went to see her with Tirzah, and she’s unassuming and really shy. I like seeing that on stage. People are expected to be incredible frontpeople, and it’s refreshing when you see musicians and performers that don’t necessarily feel that comfortable on stage. I think Tracey Thorn is quite a good example of that. I remember reading her Naked at the Albert Hall biography and her struggle with being a frontperson. I suppose I connect with people that are frontpeople, but feel slightly uncomfortable with it.

What posters did you have on your bedroom wall growing up?             

Zoee: I had a poster of Usher that I used to rub vaseline onto ‘cos he had a bare chest. And Girl Talk guinea pig posters. 

What about now?

Zoee: I just moved house, so the walls are quite austere and bare – but I did have a massive Kate Bush poster that was like, zoomed in. It was basically just her eyes looking at you. It was quite intimidating. She’s going to get stuck up somewhere in my house at some point.